Due to recent events, I have been getting people – usually White folks – coming out the rafters with all these questions about race, prejudice and other things that exists in reading, audio-visual form on the internet for free and easy to find. PBS exists, documentaries exists (free ones), online museums exists (especially now, in the middle of a pandemic), Spike Lee exists, Ava DuVernay exists, countless pieces of media and creators.

Here’s a letter I got:

Hi, I hope you’re well with all the horrible stuff going on. I have a question as a white author trying to write a ‘black’ character. The character starts out as white, gets blessed by the fire goddess, and her skin turns black with orange crackles like lava, her hair like ash, her eyes orange. Shes the main character, conquers the world and kills dragons, has a happy love story, and her arc is all about coming to terms with your inner strength. She is a bit shunned after her transformation, but as a whole she becomes very positively seen. My question is, is it offensive to have her change skin color? Is it reminiscent of people who die their skin to try and pretend to be black? I’ve tried speaking to fellow authors, but I’d really appreciate your input as well. Thank you very much.

 

I replied with a pretty scathing response but let’s go into detail about why I went the caustic route instead of the “Hey, I am sooooooooooooooo glad you literally want to make sure you’re not being racist in your works, Random White Person” that this person probably was expecting.

Read the Air

I’m a creative writer myself and some of my works require a bit of digging. For example, I have a VR game about the Berlin Blitz (1943 Berlin Blitz), a regular video game about WWII Czechoslovakia that uses first hand accounts from the actual survivors (Attentat 1942), links to the US Holocaust museum and regular Jewish history that does not circulate around them being very, very dead or under severe threat of being very, very dead. And this is not the bulk of my research work, just a narrow pie slice because I have a very broad spread of research – another example, Japanese-Korean history. Which stretches centuries, from when they started as nations to now. And it is not a pretty history. But I know it! And I didn’t bother a single Japanese or Korean person about it.

Notice I never said, “I badger my Jewish and Korean friends about how they feel about the Holocaust and Japanese-Korean relations” or “I bother random Jewish people or Czech people about the Holocaust or random Japanese and Korean people about Japanese-Korean relations because I am interested in this, I ran out of silly shows on Netflix and my Instagram feed is dull – oh, I mean, because I lack deeeeeeeepth.” Because those are pretty painful points of history. I would imagine the random people would not be too nice because, dude, wtf? And the friends of mine would probably correct me to say “No, no, she means ‘former friends’ because, dude, wtf?” No one has that at the forefront of their mind, either. Not even scholars. Because it is depressing.

When it comes to painful parts of history, I can ensure you, dollars to donuts, that someone very well informed and eloquent has written about it, painted about it, made a movie about it, so on and so forth. No need to bother random strangers and go “Hey, you’re really bothered by the fact people who look like me still like killing people like you for sport, can you tell me if I’m being racist in a personal passion project of mine? It’s really important to me I get this right.” If you can’t somehow even remotely google “Blackface” (even on my site I have a search bar, I have talked about Blackface before. Try using it) and you’re not sure you’re “Doing it wrong”, then pick up another subject to write about. Everyone likes cats, go make literary art about that. Every time I came across a pretty rough portent of history, I researched it for myself. Watched documentaries, read articles, viewed interactive exhibits – y’know, work. I didn’t seek out the affected individuals and bother them because I neeeeeeed to know. If I need to know that badly, I will research it.

Learn to know when is the right time and wrong time to badger a random person on the internet about painful histories of their background. Don’t ask a queer person about if they agree or disagree with random people killing them after a horrendous death of a trans person hits the news. Don’t ask a Black person if something is racist or not when they’re busy dealing with strings of murders tied to racist people killing them simply for existing. If it is too hard to figure it out without a one-on-one 1st person account, just chalk up that you might be too stupid for the subject and pick something else to focus on. Like knitting.

Try Search Engines

When I was younger, back in the 90s and very late 80s, if you wanted to know something, you had to go to a physical encyclopedia. Hopefully it was up to date (you needed a new set yearly and they were expensive), a full collection (a set of encyclopedia could range the entire length of a classroom. Some sets, several times over), and written well (White academics really really suck at writing anything that had nothing to do with, well, White-focused history (Europe and the White part of America). And I mean, who-did-you-blow-to-get-your-degree awful. Fun fact: they still really, really suck at it). There were many ways information could slip through the cracks. Crappy libraries, racism-fueled poor research, closed down libraries, shoddy schools, bad and/or racist teachers and/or administrators – the possibilities of abysmal education are endless.

And then the internet happened. And then, of all the search engines to start out, Google climbed out on top.

I do have my snips about Google – oh, so many snips – but, for all intents and purposes, it works well for information procurement … assuming the person is not looking for biased info, because that’s confirmation bias and that’s exactly how you get people like Dylan Roof and the end result of nine innocent people very, very dead (Search it). All you need is the ability to have critical thinking skills. And the ability to take a wonderful, long and thoughtful sip from the Shut the F*ck cUp. That way, you can have all the feels you want to feel, good and bad, and you didn’t have to ruin someone else’s day about it. I have done this countless times, when learning about countless places and countless events in history. It is an arduous method but a very useful one.

No, Really Try Researching

There are blogs, twitter accounts, tumblrs, documentaries, encyclopedia entries, online museums, books. So many details and so many facts exist now. I bet if I dig hard enough, I will probably find a virtual reality game where I can sit and ask a hologram of Dr. King a bunch of questions in the middle of Alabama. They already have that for Holocaust survivors, where they sat in a seat, became digitized and answered literal hours of questions so to become a full, fleshed out hologram that can be asked the same questions again and again from scholars to regular curious people. Now, you don’t have to track down someone’s poor grandparent and badger them about why they have a weird arm tattoo and “was it as bad as they say? Because some random guy online that I follow said it didn’t even happen. I just want to be accurate.”

Again, all you need are critical thinking skills. And an ability to zip it.

If doing basic research is too hard, then maybe try a different hobby. Like paddleball. Simple and no intelligence required.